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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Milo, Obama, and science fairs

Milo was asked, as were all his Kindergarten classmates, to build a simple boat and bring it in to school to see whose boat did best in the water. Milo's boat sank. He was very mad at his mother. She had built a bad boat. The kid who won had a father who built a very good boat.

As long as there have been school competitions there have been underlying parent competitions. Lately, President Obama has been touting the wonder of science fairs. He thinks that science fair winners will go on to become great scientists and that science fair winners should be lauded in the same way as great athletes.

This is so absurd, it is hard to figure out where to start.

There probably is the occasional science fair project that had no parental involvement at all. In fact, I judged a science fair not so long ago. I was asked to help because some kids had done computer stuff and the judges needed help. But, the truth is that I wasn't really competent to judge the only real issue -- which was originality. I saw some things that looked interesting and made it clear that the kids involved had learned a lot about computers, but it looked like obvious stuff to me. I couldn't be sure because I actually don't know everything that has ever been done with computers.

The winners were, of course, those who had built the glitziest displays, ones that had really attracted attention for one reason or another.

Far from the idea that the winners were likely to go on to become great scientists, I would guess that the kids who won had a better future in public relations or advertising because that is what they were clearly good at.

I have known many great scientists in my life. I don't know if any of them ever won a science fair, but I feel pretty sure that most never even entered. The personality of a scientist is hard to make generalizations about, but outgoing and artistic, with a need to make really great displays with the help of their parents, doesn't exactly come to my mind when I think of the scientists I have known.

President Obama is on a science kick lately. I really don't know why. If he wants the country to become more competitive, we might think about teaching kids about business, and encouraging them to become more inventive, allowing them to do more things on their own initiative and worry less about what the school says they must learn.

Of course, the President doesn't know how to do that and doesn't ask for help.

Instead he says "science" a lot.

1 comment:

comfortstarr said...

I'm going to somewhat disagree. While certainly the operations of science fairs, at least most of them, is likely lousy and open to scorn, the general concept is a good one. It strives to pull science from the shelves and put it to work. A quick perusal of the projects that win the big intel competition makes me pretty certain it's driving kids to do WAY more than they get in any school--and their projects, at least to my eyes, certainly didn't rely on any parents.

Science curricula built around the submission of a project that could win such a competition would far out-strip what we currently have in terms of effectiveness. In addition, such a mode of working layers in tons of other skills that are generally deemed important in professional circles (ability to work on a team, ability to take feedback and give it, etc.).